Monday, December 31, 2007

My Interview with an Imam

I served as an IMB missionary to South Korea for ten years, and there are few Muslims there, so obviously any missiological expertise I have is not in the area of Islamic studies. I am very interested in Islam, however, and I decided to see how an imam would react to key elements of the Camel method. I knew that an imam would most likely be resistant to Camel methodology, but I believed that, generally speaking, solidly Muslim individuals who had been well trained by such an imam would also be resistant. I believed and still believe that nominal Muslim groups are much more receptive to gospel presentations than are solid, well-trained Muslim groups. Of course, individuals within resistant groups can surrender their lives in repentance and faith to Christ while under the special conviction of the Holy Spirit, but I believe that missionaries are wise to concentrate their efforts and resources on groups that are receptive now, but which may become resistant later. Kevin Greeson stated that the Camel method is a “powerful tool in reaching Muslims everywhere” (Greeson, The Camel, 2007, p. 16). In the forward to Greeson’s book, an unnamed “Missionary in the Arab Muslim World” described his view of the significance of Greeson’s methodology: “There may not be a magic bullet for Muslim evangelism, but the Camel is as close as it gets” (The Camel, p. 13). To be fair in my assessment, I want to point out that Greeson said the following: “Do not linger in a community that is unresponsive. Not only is it unproductive, wasting your time laboring in an unresponsive community can even be dangerous” (The Camel, p. 76). The imam allowed me to record the interview. He had studied the New Testament and was fluent in both Arabic and English.

First, I asked to what factor the numerical growth of Muslims in America can be attributed:

BT: “I read that in 1998, in an article, that at the present rate of growth then, some people project that Islam will be the second-largest religion in America in about twenty years. And I was wondering how you would account for that growth. Is it because of immigration, or because of Muslims in the United States having a lot of children, or effective evangelism of non-Muslims, or all of the above?”

Imam: “It’s not because of the important number of immigrants. It’s not because of effective evangelism. . . . It’s the message of Islam as a universal message.”

In his “Camel 101” instructions, Greeson’s first key point was in regard to surah 3:47 when he gave the following advice for a practitioner: “Then ask, ‘Does this ayyah say that Isa came directly from Allah, and that He did not have a father?’” (The Camel, p. 107) Thus, the following conversation ensued:

BT: “Obviously, the Qur’an discusses the prophet Isa. I was particularly interested in the third surah, especially the forty-seventh verse. Does this ayyah say that Isa came directly from Allah, and that He did not have a father?”

Imam: “Yes, what the Qur’an says is, and I know this, what the Qur’an says is God sent angel Gabriel to Mary to give Mary the good news of having a child. And Mary as a woman and knowing what it means to have a child and how a child is conceived, Mary says, ‘How can I have a child and have not permitted adultery or any man has ever touched me?’ because that’s the natural way to have a child. Then Gabriel answers and says, ‘It is a decision your Lord has already taken,’ and Gabriel (unintelligible word) this period in Mary, and then Mary started feeling pregnant. This is one of the miracles of God. He’s so powerful, He can do anything He wants. The same way He created Adam the first human being without any father or mother. And create Eve from Adam without any mother {sic}, the same way God could create Isa, Jesus, with a mother and without a father. Now, Isa then went through those steps, the three major steps as far as pregnancy is concerned, but it was in a quicker way because God made it so, and then was born naturally, the way we all were born, and to be a miracle, and the Qur’an called it a miracle. Remember when the people of Israel came to Mary they said, ‘How come you have a child? Your father had never been a bad person. So how come Mary you have a child?’ Then Mary didn’t say a word. The Qur’an said (unintelligible Arabic words). She just pointed her finger to the newborn baby, and the newborn baby Jesus then spoke from the cradle. So {sic} asked to defend His mother, and what did He say? He says, ‘I am a prophet of God, and I was given the book and the wisdom, and I was commanded to say My prayers and to give charity.’ That’s how the Qur’an states it. So then, Jesus from there spoke to the people, which was a miracle of God for a newborn baby to speak out defending his mother. And this is how the Qur’an states the story of Jesus in many, many chapters, not only in Chapter Mary, but if you go to Chapter Mary, also, which is not the third chapter, but you will see also how detailed it is from {sic} God takes the plan of how Jesus works. And Muslims believe in that as a miracle and don’t take Jesus as anything else {sic} as a creature of God who is a prophet and a messenger to the people of Israel.”

Greeson had warned that such a response could occur: “He may reply that Adam did not have a father” (The Camel, p. 107). Greeson’s main goal, however, at this point was to use surah 3:45-47 to show that Jesus is holy. The imam instead emphasized Allah’s power and the humanity of Jesus. Greeson’s second key point in the “Camel 101” presentation was in regard to Isa’s power over death, and Greeson stated, “Then ask, ‘Do you know of any other prophet who was given the power over death?’ He will respond with, ‘No.’” (The Camel, p. 108) My conversation with the imam continued:

BT: “Now in two verses later, in verse forty-nine in surah three, it seems to indicate that he was given power over death. Do you know of any other prophet mentioned that had that kind of power over death?”

Imam: “That was not only given to him. It was given to previous messengers and even was given to Prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him. But the important words in that verse, or words in any verse is important, but the important thing to lay the stress upon is ‘with God’s permission,’ meaning he wouldn’t be able to do it without the permission of God. Remember what Jesus said, ‘I was sent down on earth not to do My will but to do the will of the One who sent Me.’ And in some Scriptures you see the ‘will of the Father’ or he said the ‘will of the One who sent Me.’ So then Jesus was never entrusted in his own will, but the will of God. This is why he couldn’t do anything without the permission of God. This is why he sometimes would vacate anyplace and go alone and pray and communicate with the Lord so as to have the permission of the Lord as far as what he was doing is concerned. So that in that verse (unintelligible word) was given the power, and the power is known. Jesus could raise the dead but with the permission of God which has nothing to do with his human status. But it is a power coming from God with the permission of God Himself.”

Thus, the imam agreed with Greeson’s assertion that Isa had power over death, but the imam stressed that such power came from Allah, not from Jesus. The imam continually emphasized the attributes of Allah, not those of Jesus. Greeson’s third key point in the “Camel 101” presentation was in regard to Isa knowing the way to heaven, and he stated, “Finally, use this ayyah to help Muslims understand that Isa knows the way to heaven because He Himself has traveled the straight path from Allah to earth and returned to Allah in heaven. . . . Say to him. . . . Out of all the prophets, which one do you think is most capable of helping me get to heaven?” (The Camel, p. 108) Our conversation continued:

BT: “In surah three, in verse fifty-five, ‘Allah said: O Isa, I am going to terminate the period of your stay (on earth) and cause you to ascend unto Me and purify you of those who disbelieve and make those who follow you above those who disbelieve to the day of resurrection; then to Me shall be your return, so I will decide between you concerning that in which you differed.’ So it seems to indicate at that time Isa was taken to heaven, and the path was shown to him. Out of all the prophets, would he be the one who was most capable of helping a human being know the way to heaven because of that incident?”

Imam: “You know actually every single prophet was given the knowledge and the wisdom to show people the way to heaven—every single prophet. But Jesus is very particular because no prophet has ever experienced what he has experienced as far as ascending to the Lord when he was thirty-three years old. Then he ascended, meaning he was elevated to heaven. And he is living somewhere in heaven with the same age—thirty-three years old—and he will come back on earth with the same age—thirty-three years old, because in heaven there is no getting old. You will be always in the same style, in the same level. Therefore he will come back as we believe, and this is why the Qur’an says ‘ascended.’ As he was living, a human being, he was ascended. So then he did not die, but he will come back on earth and then will face death as everybody will face death and then be buried. And when he comes, he will come at the same time with what we call ‘Al Mahdi (unintelligible Arabic word)’ the messiah. In our own will come also will {sic} (unintelligible Arabic word) Dajjal the antichrist. They will all have the same time. And then he with the help of the Mahdi then will kill the antichrist who will actually mess around on earth. So then Jesus as we said was ascended and of course will come back and will face that because he is a human being. Therefore he will have to go through what human beings go through, but was given favors that was given to nobody else as far as his birth is concerned and as far as his ascending to the heavens is concerned.”

Thus, the imam did not sense Christ’s exclusivity in this surah. He did not view Christ as being the most capable prophet to help a person go to heaven. The imam believed that every prophet knew the way to heaven. Greeson placed a lot of emphasis on using the Arabic word mutawaffika in surah 3:55 as a bridge to the Christian understanding of Christ’s death on the cross: “According to ayyah 55, it was Allah’s plan to cause Isa to die. Many Muslims will try to gloss over this point, even denying that Jesus died on the cross. But the Arabic word used in the Qur’an here is unmistakable, mutawaffika—‘to cause to die.’ It was Allah’s plan to cause Isa to die. . . . When you hear your friend pronounce the word mutawaffika ask him to stop and discuss this word. . . . If he does know Arabic, he should answer, ‘The word means “to die,” “to cause to die,” or “to kill.”’” (The Camel, p. 138) Our conversation continued:

BT: “Okay. In this translation it says, ‘I am going to terminate the period of your stay (on earth).’ I think the Arabic word in question is mutawaffika or the short form tawaffika, and apparently that word can be translated in several different ways—as ‘received,’ as ‘to take back,’ but some people say it’s the most common verb used in Arabic for ‘to cause to die.’”

Imam: “It says, (unintelligible Arabic passage). Now this verse means, and I’m going to tell you what it means. Remember when the Lord said, ‘O Jesus, I am going to ascend {sic} you, to elevate you toward me. And you will come to me as you will be purified,’ meaning God will purify Jesus. ‘Purify you’ (unintelligible Arabic phrase) ‘from those people who are disbelievers,’ meaning those people who are disbelievers—they are coming to harm you, and I’m gonna avoid {sic} that to happen. This is why when they came to get Jesus, actually Jesus was elevated towards heaven, and one of them was given the image of Jesus so as to be crucified. That was the punishment.”

BT: “Was that Judas in most people’s minds who are Muslim, or do most Muslims speculate on who that person was that took the place of Jesus?”

Imam: “Yes, yes, they speculate. Some of them say it was one of Jesus’ disciples, and some say it was one of those who was coming to harm him. But Allah knows best. And therefore Allah says then, (Unintelligible Arabic phrase). ‘And I will make those people who believe and follow you,’ meaning the true believers and the true followers—disciples—of Jesus. (Unintelligible Arabic phrase) ‘And I will put them’ actually ‘on top of those who disbelieved in you,’ meaning they will be better than them and much more honorable than them. (Unintelligible Arabic phrase) ‘And this will happen until the day of judgment, after the day of judgment.’ (Unintelligible Arabic phrase) ‘And know for sure that you all shall return to me.’ (Unintelligible Arabic phrase) ‘And when you come to me, then I will judge in between you.’”

BT: “So, mutawaffika in this context means ‘to take him back,’ or does it mean ‘to cause him to die’?”

Imam: “Yes, mutawaffik is a word that is coming from fata, and fata means ‘to die.’ But what does it mean? That means separation from the light in this world to another life. Now Jesus was taken from this life to another life because the life in heaven far differs from the life on earth. So therefore still he did not die, but mutawaffika (unintelligible Arabic phrase), meaning I will take you from this life to the other life.”

BT: “So He did not experience physical death.”

Imam: “No.”

BT: “He was just quickly transferred and changed.”

Imam: “That’s the word—transferred—from this life to another life, but did not face death, physically, but will face death physically after having returned on earth by the end of time.”

BT: “Is that the standard translation or interpretation that most Muslims give to that?”

Imam: “Yes, you know that is the authentic interpretation we have received from Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Now, let me make something clear. We have those we call ‘Orientalists.’ You may have heard of them. It is a sect which took birth in the fourth or fifth century (unintelligible Arabic phrase) in Europe because of the extension of Islam in Europe. So therefore they have to create something which will sometime contradict. It’s within Islam, but which will {sic} contradict the teachings of authentic Islam. But still God will bless the community of Muslims of the best understanding, of the understanding itself of the religion. But anytime somebody brings something out of the limits of Islam, then the Muslims will know. The scholars will know, and therefore the Qur’an will teach us how to deal with those people. Those Orientalists now will come with certain ideas like that.”

As part of Greeson’s third key point in his “Camel 101” presentation, he suggested using surah 46:9: “Ask him to read surah 46, The Sandhills, verse 9 in which Allah instructs Mohammed. . . . This ayyah states that Mohammed did not know where he or his followers would go after death” (The Camel, p. 109). Our conversation continued:

BT: “I have a question about surah forty-six, verse nine, The Sandhills. My translation, Muhammad is speaking: ‘Say: I am not the first of the apostles, and I do not know what will be done with me or with you: I do not follow anything but that which is revealed to me, and I am nothing but a plain warner.’ Is this saying that he did not know his final destination, or what would be your interpretation of that verse?”

Imam: “Okay, that verse reads this way: ‘Say, I am not a new thing among the messengers,’ meaning, I am not the first messenger sent. ‘Nor do I know what will be done with me or you. I only follow that which is revealed to me, and I am but a plain warner.’ Okay, concerning this verse, Allah is showing us that there have been prophets and messengers before Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. So then, whatever happened to those prophets and messengers before him may happen to him—Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him—how some messengers were killed by the people of Israel, and some were tortured. And this may happen to him. And he faced something like that when he went to Taif, when the people—the community of Taif—took the sick people, you know, and also the children, and they were throwing stones to him so as to have him bleeding. And God actually knew about it and sent the angel to him and say, ‘Whatever you want me to do for these people, I can do,’ as He did to other people who used to do prophets like that. So then, God (unintelligible Arabic phrase) of course had the knowledge, and Allah gave him the knowledge, and he can predict things. But he would just let people know that I’m a human being like you. But what is special about me is that I am a messenger (unintelligible Arabic phrase), I am a person who God is revealing things to. So whatever happened to the messengers before can also happen to me, and that’s what I know what I know, what will be done with me or you. Nor do I know what will be done with me.”

BT: “So he was not talking about the way to heaven. He was talking about physically being attacked on earth.”

Imam: “There you go. The messengers faced those kinds of problems actually before him. Then this—also to let people know that the prophets and messengers who came before him were also teaching the same thing that he is teaching. Therefore he may face the same thing that they faced with opposition from other people. And by the way, if you really want to have an understanding of the Qur’an, this is Tafsir Ibn Kathir. This is the most authentic translation or explanation of the Qur’an.”

Obviously, this passage in the Qur'an (46:9) does not explicitly mention death. Greeson’s interpretation of the passage thus fails with solid Muslims without an explicit mention of physical death. Greeson said that if a Muslim gave a favorable answer to the third key point in the “Camel 101” presentation, then the Christian witness should then present the gospel in a way that utilizes Islamic bridges: “If he answers, ‘Isa is the one most capable to help me get to heaven,’ then you may have found your person of peace. Walk him through the Korbani Plan of Salvation.” (The Camel, p. 108) Greeson explained the plan: “The Korbani Plan uses natural bridges within the culture of every Muslim to introduce the New Testament message of salvation. Some Camel practitioners go straight into the Korbani Plan of Salvation from the initial Camel presentation. . . . The word korbani (kor BAHN ee) comes from the word korban which has both Hebrew and Arabic roots. As a verb it means to draw near, but as a noun it means a sacrifice. For Jew and Arab alike, the connection was clear: the way for people to draw near to God was through a sacrifice. Each year, Muslims observe a sacrifice called Korbani-Eid (also known as Eid-al-Adha or Bakr-Eid.)” (The Camel, p. 113) I questioned the imam about the meaning of the festival:

BT: “I understand there is a festival called Korbani Eid. I was wondering, is that practiced all over the world? When I’ve read about it, it sounds like the sacrifice atones for names placed on a piece of paper as well as those placing their hands on the animal, and then the animal is killed. Is that a worldwide practice, or is that something confined to one area?”

Imam: “Okay, the Eid is called the Eid-ul-Adha, meaning the festival of Adha, meaning ‘sacrifice.’ Now, remember what I said earlier about culture. Culture is very important to people, and people do—and let me just mention that placing your hands on the animal while it is being slaughtered—you know, we used to do that when our father was slaughtering, you know, the sheep on this particular day. It is our culture, and the people used to believe that if you do so, you will have the same reward as your father—the one who is sacrificing the sheep or the animal on that particular day. Now, Eid-ul-Adha is the Eid of sacrifice, which is going to be on Wednesday, this coming Wednesday, and you will be very welcome to come there, you know, and see how things go and all that. And then on the particular we just remember the day when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Ishmael as related in the Bible or in other Scriptures. And God then, of course, put Abraham and his son through that test even though God knew exactly what Abraham believed, but He wanted Abraham to be sure of his faith, and Abraham was of course as a prophet and a messenger. So then, God put him through that test, and Abraham passed the test, so he was to be rewarded. Okay, so Allah made his children to be prophets and also the Prophet Muhammad to come you know through Ishmael, you know, as (unintelligible Arabic phrase), and those were Ishmael’s words, the father, we can say, the father of Arabs. Now, what is to be done is this: to go perform the sala and then go and slaughter, meaning the sacrifice. There is no putting the hands and all that. That is part of culture. It isn’t a part of the teaching of Islam. It is just part of culture, like I said again. But it is not a culture (unintelligible phrase), but it is better for the Muslim to limit himself in the teachings of Islam and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. But it’s all about culture at that particular point you are making. But of course every single Muslim, if they can, have to sacrifice this sheep or whatever they can, according to Islam, and for the sake of God, not for the sake of anything else. We don’t need the blood, and we cannot throw away the meat. That’s why we have to eat from the meat and also give charity to those who don’t have from the meat as well, and the blood is shed for the sake of Allah. We don’t need the blood. And sometimes as you go, they will, you know, put their finger in the blood and then put it right on their face, you know, all day long. This is part of culture but not part of Islam as well.”

BT: “In some of the cultures is there a feeling that the guilt of the people is transferred to the animal, and maybe that’s why they touch the animal and put the animal’s blood on them—that the animal’s sacrifice takes care of their guilt and that it benefits them somehow?”

Imam: “It has nothing to do with guiltiness or anything like that. No. It is something prescribed by God, and we do it as we pray, as we give charity. It is an order from God, and we do it, now, for those who can. For those who cannot, it is not an obligation, but as far as feeling guiltiness and your guilt being carried away along with a sacrifice, no, Islam does not teach that. And if people think about that, it’s because based on character, that’s different from what Islam teaches. It’s not going to carry anything, but you do it. You do it for the sake of God, and then God will reward you and may forgive you of your sins because of how submitted and devoted you are in obeying Him.”

Thus, the imam believed that the observance of Korbani-Eid is a simple act of obedience and has nothing to do with a transfer of guilt. For solid, well-trained Muslims such as the imam, the festival cannot be utilized as a bridge to the Christian understanding of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

Christian missionaries to Islamic groups should concentrate on both receptive groups and receptive individuals, if possible. Jesus made this very point: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. Stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you; for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not keep moving from house to house. Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is set before you; and heal those in it who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’” (Luke 10:5-9, NASB)

Donald McGavran, a missiologist who served among many Muslims, made the same point about concentration on receptive groups:

“Correct policy is to occupy fields of low receptivity lightly. The harvest will ripen some day. Their populations are made up of men and women for whom Christ died. While they continue in their rebellious and resistant state, they should be given the opportunity to hear the gospel in as courteous a way as possible. But they should not be heavily occupied lest, fearing that they will be swamped by Christians, they become even more resistant. They should not be bothered and badgered. Generations should not be reared in schools where—receiving small doses of the gospel that they successfully reject—they are in effect inoculated against the Christian religion. Resistant lands should be held lightly. While holding them lightly, Christian leaders should perfect organizational arrangement so that when these lands turn responsive, missionary resources can be sent in quickly. For some time now we have been hearing a great deal about the sudden new receptivity among Muslims in Indonesia. It is devoutly to be hoped that missionaries to Muslims in great numbers will be transferred to that part of the world. Some have, but not nearly enough. Reinforcing receptive areas is the only mode of mission by which resistant populations that become receptive may be led to responsible membership in ongoing churches.”

Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, rev. and ed. C. Peter Wagner, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 191.

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